Yasuke was a legendary 6ft 2 African samurai who served under the powerful daimyo, Oda Nobunaga, during Japan’s Sengoku period. He was a unique figure in Japanese history, and is the first known Afro samurai to serve in Japan.
Not much is known about Yasuke’s early life, but it is believed that he was born around the middle of the 16th century in Mozambique. His incredible journey began when he arrived in Japan as a servant to the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano, and it was through his association with Valignano that he came to the attention of Oda Nobunaga, a powerful Japanese warlord.
Oda Nobunaga was known for his interest in foreign cultures, and he was intrigued by Yasuke’s dark skin and African features. It is said that when Yasuke was presented to Oda Nobunaga, he thought that his skin must have been colored with black ink. Nobunaga had him strip from the waist up and made him scrub his skin. These events are recorded in a 1581 letter of the Jesuit Luís Fróis to Lourenço Mexia, and in the 1582 Annual Report of the Jesuit Mission in Japan, also by Fróis.
These accounts were also published in Cartas que os padres e irmãos da Companhia de Jesus escreverão dos reynos de Japão e China II (1598), normally known simply as Cartas.
When Nobunaga realized that the Yaduke’s skin was indeed black, he took an interest in him.
The account provided by The Lord Nobunaga Chronicle supports Fróis’s description of the meeting. According to the Chronicle, on the 23rd day of the second month, a black page arrived from the Christian lands. The man was said to be strong, with the complexion of a bull, and possessed a noble character.
Nobunaga eventually invited Yasuke to join his court as a worker, and Yasuke quickly proved himself to be a valuable member of the household. He was strong and skilled in the martial arts, and he quickly gained the respect and admiration of those around him.
Yasuke was granted the title of samurai, a rare honor for a foreigner and an even rarer honor for a person of African descent. He was given his own residence and a katana by Nobunaga and was taken in by the warlord to become his weapon bearer.
As a samurai, Yasuke served as a bodyguard and aide to Nobunaga, and he was present at many of the warlord’s key battles.
One of the most significant battles Yasuke fought in was the Battle of Tenmokuzan in 1582. This battle was fought against the powerful warlord, Takeda Katsuyori, it was Nobunaga’s final invasion of Takeda domain.
As the battle raged on, Yasuke stood out amongst the other warriors with his dark skin and towering height. His skill with the sword was unmatched, and he fought with the ferocity of a lion.
In the end, Nobunaga’s army emerged victorious, but their triumph was short-lived. Tragically, in June 1582, Nobunaga was attacked and forced to commit seppuku, a ritualistic suicide by disembowelment, by the army of his own general, Akechi Mitsuhide. Mitsuhide then took command of Nobunaga’s possessions.
After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined forces with Nobunaga’s successor, who was attempting to rally the Oda troops to avenge Nobunaga’s murder. Yasuke fought alongside the army of Nobutada in the Battle of Yamazaki against Akechi’s troops and is even said to have manned a Ōzutsu (Japanese Cannon), ultimately contributing to their victory and the avenging of Nobunaga.
After the end of the Battle of Yamazaki on July 11, 1582, Yasuke’s fate becomes somewhat of a mystery. It is believed that he may have returned to Africa or gone to fight in other parts of Asia. Regardless of what happened to him, Yasuke’s impact on Japanese history is undeniable. He was the first known person of African descent to attain the rank of samurai, and his story has been celebrated in Japan and around the world.